Heads Up: Jackson County Teen Ropes Way To Nationals
The way Rafe Starkey figures it, his four-year-old partnership with Tabitha Kiker was perfect — he’d take heads, she’d take tails, and there’d be no stopping them in the cowboy/cowgirl world of team roping.Trouble is, the steer wasn’t listening.When Starkey, the 17-year-old son of Jackson County Farmers Federation members Ralph and Robyn Starkey, and Kiker, a 17-year-old Pleasant Valley High School senior, threw their lassos in the National High School Finals Rodeo at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield, things didn’t work out.”We didn’t have very good luck,” Starkey said after returning from the July event. “It had rained a lot before our first run. I caught it, but Tabitha missed. And in our second run, we had to be pretty fast because we didn’t get a time on the first one — times are based on a two-head average to make it to the short go-round — but when I threw my rope, it got his head but it also caught the steer’s front leg.”Of course, any rodeo fan will tell you what that means — disqualification.”I didn’t feel too good about it,” Starkey said. “It could’ve been a whole lot worse. That’s just part of it.”He should know. Starkey’s been roping since he was 11, ever since his cousin, Allan Wheeler, got him interested in it. With the help of some friends and neighbors like Stacey and Perry Peek, Scottie Hairston and Hack Ott, young Starkey’s aim with the rope became deadly.So when he heard about a junior rodeo in Resaca, Ga., it didn’t take Starkey long to get bit by the ropin’ rodeo bug, team roping in particular.Team roping is similar to tie-down roping and steer wrestling in that the ropers start from boxes on each side of the chute from which the steer enters the arena. The steer gets a head start determined by the length of the arena. One end of the breakaway barrier is attached to the steer and stretched across the open end of the header’s box.When the steer reaches its advantage point, the barrier is broken, and the header takes off in pursuit, with the heeler trailing slightly farther behind. The ropers are assessed a 10-second penalty if the header breaks the barrier before the steer completes his head start.The header ropes first and must make one of three legal catches on the steer, around both horns, around one horn and the head or around the neck. Any other catch by the header is considered illegal and the team is disqualified. After the header makes his catch, he turns the steer to the left and exposes the steer’s hind legs to the heeler. The heeler then attempts to rope both hind legs. If he or she catches only one foot, the team is assessed a five-second penalty. After the ropers catch the steer, the clock is stopped when there is no slack in their ropes and their horses face one another.Starkey was a header in search of a heeler — and he found one in Kiker. “She’s a better heeler than I am, and I’m a better header than she is,” said Starkey, describing their ropin’ roles. “It’s like we are able to read each other’s mind.”Together, they roped their way to a second-place finish in the Alabama High School Rodeo Finals in Andalusia last June. “We did all right throughout the year and accumulated enough points to win second. We had a real good finals. I think our best time all year was 6.1 seconds.”More importantly, the good finish in the state competition qualified them for the National High School Finals Rodeo at the Illinois State Fairground in Springfield last July.More than 1,500 boys and girls — a new record — from 40 states, five Canadian provinces and Australia competed in the events. Only one Alabamian, steer wrestler Tyler Eaves of Titus, was able finish in the top 20 in any event, taking the 18th position with an average of 10.312 seconds. Alabama finished 27th in the overall team standings.